In the wake of the accusations against California Golden Bears strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington, many current players, as well as athletic department officials, have come out in support of their coach. One former player -- who was not interviewed for any of the recent pieces on the program -- approached BearTerritory to tell his story.
Offensive lineman Donovan Frazer was a member of the 2013 and 2014 teams, which have come into sharp focus as a result of two highly-publicized and well-documented incidents during that timeframe -- the death of Agu following a team workout, and a locker room knockout of running back Hale. Frazer was present for both incidents, but chose to focus on the overall tenor of workouts under Harrington, and the circumstances surrounding the Hale incident.
Frazer played in one game off the bench as a 2014 senior against Sacramento State during his three seasons with the program after transferring from Laney College, where he was a two-year starter. Frazier graduated from Cal in December of 2014 with bachelor’s degrees in legal studies and political science.
For reference, the Dr. Jeffrey Tanji report on Cal's strength and conditioning program, at the center of the controversy, is attached in full here. Critics of the report cite that both Tanji -- the Director of Sports Medicine for UC Davis -- and John Murray, a private strength coach, who also participated in the three-day review -- had conflicts of interest, in that they both had prior relationships with members of the Cal strength staff.
What follows is Frazer's full, unabridged account.
So let me start off by saying that the 2013 season was not a good experience for anyone. After everything that happened with Coach Tedford's departure and the general negative feelings towards the AD that stemmed from it, the team did a poor job of hiding that the locker room was completely fractured.
Coach Damon was pretty polarizing once he came in, as his style was completely different from that of [previous strength and conditioning coach and current head of Cal strength and conditioning, Mike] Blasquez's. Damon was more intense than B[lasquez], and his workouts were much more conditioning focused than what we had done with B[lasquez]. We ran a lot farther and a lot longer than we had previously. Obviously, this made sense, as our offensive system had completely changed. But having him come in during the summer rather than the spring was a sudden change that very few were actually prepared for, and as a result, it rubbed some guys the wrong way.
Most of the ill feelings towards Damon stemmed from the non-travel squad workouts that took place during the regular season. These took place during the week (M-F, typically had W off) at 0600, and involved some form of lifting, conditioning, or a combination of both. Guys who were in this workout group referred to it as "The Crusade," as it was well known that we were working out much more intensively than those on the travel squad, and we joked that we were on a "crusade" to fix the problems that the had led us to only win 1 game [during the 2013 season].
Before someone takes it as a negative that we were working out harder than the travel squad, let me note that this is a common practice for college football. These lifts served as a developmental period for either freshmen looking to put on size, to improve players on the practice squad who had not made the travel list, or to rehab injured players getting over an injury. Obviously, no one wanted to be in the developmental group because it often meant you weren't traveling.
So the common theme of these workouts was team accountability. If one guy messed up, everyone suffered the consequences. It was meant to simulate game situations where if one guy who blows his assignment, gets penalized, etc., it negatively impacts the whole team. We would be punished as a group with up-downs, push ups, extra sprints, etc.
As is often the case with group punishment, this is where most of the tension was created. Many guys, myself included, got sick pretty quickly of being punished for other guys who were showing up late or missing workouts completely. It's obvious this was done to have us encourage the guys who were continually messing up to get with the program or to quit, as they were acting as a detriment to us and the team as a whole.
The most infamous of these group punishments was the November 1, 2013, workout. Friday's were traditionally a longer workout as it was the end of the week. Damon came to us the the day before [Halloween] and laid out his expectations for the next morning. We had 2 workouts that we could do: a normal one or an extended conditioning one. As long as everyone was present, on time, and no one showed up drunk/hungover, we would have our normal workout. If any of these rules were violated, we would have the extended conditioning.
As it is well known, we had the latter. While everyone knows about Hale not showing up, he was not the only player responsible for us being punished. We had multiple guys show up late, and some showed up reeking of alcohol from Halloween parties the night before. These guys messed up bad, and the group suffered for it. It served as a microcosm of the problems the 2013 team had.
As much as I am not a fan of group punishment, at no point did Coach Damon ever encourage us to physically attack another teammate. Did he tell us to take control of our team and fix the obvious problems? Yes. But the accusations of "Frontier Vigilantism" are absolutely false. Damon was referring not only to Hale, but to the other players who had shown up late or drunk that morning, who were equally as responsible for the workout that occurred. None of them were physically confronted.
We were adult men attending a prestigious academic institution. We knew the right and wrong ways to handle a conflict like this. As angry as I was at Hale for missing that workout, what happened to him was wrong. But in no way should Damon be faulted for the action of another. He did not "order the code red" and he did not encourage any of us to assault Hale or any of the other players who had shown up late. Someone acted out of frustration towards the situation and made a poor choice.
As much as I hated these group punishments at times, they benefited the team. The improvement in discipline, morale, and play has shown significantly during Damon's tenure. Guys started going to class and keeping their academics in check because of the ethics he instilled in us. As disappointing as the 2014 season ended, that team was night and day improved over the 2013 squad. We were tighter as group because of the focus on teamwork that Damon preached to us. The 2015 team built on this and won a bowl because of it.
It's been well-documented that the symptoms of the rapid decline of the final years of Jeff Tedford's tenure included a lack of accountability, particularly in the academic realm.
"It got too out of hand," former defensive back Stefan McClure, who joined the program in 2011, told USA Today last season. "If you're undisciplined in the classroom or off the field then it's hard to just flip the switch and be disciplined on the field. It was really guys just not being accountable and doing their jobs in all phases, and it just showed on the field."
This was the straw that broke the camel's back -- Cal came in last in the Pac-12 in Academic Progress Rating in Tedford's final season. In the three years since Sonny Dykes was hired (along with Harrington), the Bears have gone from worst to first, finishing this most recent APR reporting year with a 997 score, out of 1,000. From sources within the team, the differences between the types of individuals that were on the team in 2013, and the types of personalities on the current roster, are quite stark. As Frazer says, "night and day."
Damon came into a program with a culture problem and fixed it. He deserves to be commended for the work he has done.
On another note:
The writing on a "noose group" is absolutely false. We never had a "noose group." We did have a "noose drill" which our receivers would take part in prior to practice and games. It's a common football drill, that is explained in the attached article. The coaches stopped referring to it as such after a player, who was not a receiver or ever took part in the drill, complained about it in the locker room prior to a game, several weeks into the season.